Why I Preach Expository Sermons

June 3rd, 2014 | | No Comments
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Sermon PreparationAttend a few different churches in your area in rapid succession, and you will undoubtedly discern some striking differences. Some sing hymns with organ accompaniment, others choruses with a rock band; some follow a traditional liturgy, others follow the modern liturgy of sing-sermon-sing again.


At some point someone will stand up to preach a sermon. That’s a widespread similarity. But once he starts talking, we face a whole new slew of differences. Is the series based on a passage from Scripture or a topic from life? Does he proceed methodically through the text or does he use the passage as a launching pad for reflection? Do his points follow the structure of the text or does he reorganize the passage to fit his points?


In a nutshell, where does he land on the spectrum from topical to expository sermons?


What Is Expository Preaching?

For the sake of simplicity, let’s define expository preaching as preaching that is not only based on but driven by the passage at hand. Once a pastor selects his passage—whether in an expository or topical series—he works diligently to determine the structure and thrust of the passage in its original contexts (historical, literary, generic) and then contextualizes that message for his modern audience. He does not know what he will say on the subject—again, whether in an expository or topical series—until he first completes his exegesis of the passage. Once he preaches, he follows not only the emphasis of the passage, but the structure as well, trusting that God inspired the message and the medium.


How Do I Know If It’s Expository?

Determining if a pastor is preaching an expository sermon is not difficult. It doesn’t take technical training or special insight. A few key questions will usually suffice.


  1. Does the pastor read the whole passage (either all at once or in chunks) instead of merely alluding to key points along the way?
  2. Do his points follow the structure of the passage (e.g., verses 1-7 for point one, verses 8-12 for point two, and verses 13-19 for point three) without omitting or reorganizing any verses?
  3. Does he proceed methodically through the passage, commenting thought by thought (clause by clause, verse by verse, or paragraph by paragraph, depending on the scope of the passage) rather than drawing implications from the whole only or with indirect reference to the thought-flow of the passage?
  4. Does his sermon closely resemble not only the message of the passage but also its tone and approach? That is, does he warn from warning passages and encourage from encouraging passages rather than remaking the message according to his determination?
  5. In some ways, the easiest question to answer is simply: After listening to the sermon, do I feel like I could explain the original sense of the passage to someone else easily and clearly?


I’m sure there are other indicators, and I’m sure someone could answer those questions in the affirmative and still be guilty of rank eisegesis[1]. But overall those are good gauges.


Why I Preach Expository Sermons

Of course, determining what sort of sermon you’re preaching/hearing is very different from determining what sort of sermon you should be preaching/hearing. Does it matter which preaching approach we take?


I won’t speak for everyone, but here are seven reasons why I preach expository sermons. (This list is not exhaustive, nor is it in any particular order.)


  1. I believe the Word alone is living and active. I have read a lot of good books and heard a lot of good messages in my life, and some have left a lasting impression on me. And yet only the Word of God is living and active, capable of bringing about the transformation we seek (Hebrews 4:12). God does not promise that any other word will accomplish its purposes, but he does promise that of his Word (Isaiah 55:11).The Word of God alone is God-breathed and therefore useful for the full equipping of every Christian (2 Timothy 3:16-17). God speaks—which is a wonder in itself!—and what he says we need to hear. Why would I think to offer a congregation of believers (and unbelievers, undoubtedly) anything else on Sunday morning? What do they need to hear more than this?
  2. I don’t trust myself. I am far too aware of my own shortcomings—and based on conversations with those who have been at this far longer than I, that isn’t going to change before glory. I don’t know enough, I’m not wise enough to speak to the many issues the average person faces every day. So why would I trust myself to say what needs to be said on any given topic? Quite simply, I don’t. I don’t want to teach, correct, rebuke, train, warn, promise, encourage except what comes directly from Scripture. I have no authority in myself, and I know it. But if I faithfully teach the Word of God—as faithfully as I can, given how prone I am to misinterpretation and carelessness—I can speak with derivative authority at least. The authority of any preacher is directly proportional to how faithful to God’s Word he is.
  3. I have my hobby horses. I have axes to grind, and left to my own devices, I will grind them every single week. Certain sins appear to me more heinous than others, undoubtedly because they are related to my greatest strengths or my greatest weaknesses. Even as an expository preacher, I suspect many in my audience would quickly discern what these are: relational disciple-making and the importance of the mind on the side of my strengths; sins of pride and lust on the side of weakness. I’m not sure I’ve ever preached a sermon that didn’t touch on at least one, and more often all of these. But if I bind myself to the passage at hand, I am far more likely to broaden my horizon, to see without my own personal filter, to address what God sees as most important at that moment.
  4. I think the message and the medium belong together. This may spring from my artistic temperament, but I don’t think one can divorce the message and the medium. I think certain musical styles and tunes are inappropriate for certain lyrics, as an example. The same is true—much more decidedly so—of God’s Word. There is a reason God reveals himself in a wide variety of genres: narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, prophecy, reasoned argumentation. In marked contrast to this wondrous diversity, we tend to preach everything like an epistle (or worse, like an Enlightenment lecture). I think this can be especially true when it comes to tone. I, for example, find my emotional tone ranges from sobriety to indignation (I have lots of issues, obviously); I don’t preach wonder well. But if I can imitate the tone of the passage, I can paint with the full biblical palette of emotions—a richer portrait indeed. When we strive to match our sermon to the message and the medium (tone, style, structure), we express tacit confidence in God’s modes of revelation. (And I suspect our hearers will appreciate the variety too!)
  5. I want to preserve the tension. I wrote recently about tendentiously preserving the tensions that run throughout God’s Word. Expository preaching more than any other exercise will help us do just that. Imagine, both Reformed and Arminian preachers have the privilege of preaching Hebrews 6:4-6 one week, and then Hebrews 7:25 a short while later. That will surely temper our hardline approaches to the assurance debate! Pentecostals and cessationists get to preach 1 Corinthians 13 before coming to tongues and prophecy in the next chapter. Those strong on sanctification (would-be legalists) spend the first four chapters of Galatians declaring the wonder of salvation by grace alone through faith alone; those strong on justification (would-be libertines) then get the final two chapters to expound on what it means to keep the Law of Christ. I don’t want to preach only half the counsel of God on any subject—and expository preaching keeps me in line.
  6. I can tackle hard issues with less fear. Some topics preachers never want to bring up. What pastor wants to preach on supporting pastors financially (Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17-18)? It sounds unconscionably mercenary. There are many topics that we would gladly shun because we know they will open up a floodgate of angry e-mails regardless of how faithfully we preach the text. It’s like touching an electric fence: I don’t care how much you desire to honor God, you’re going to be wary of grabbing hold a second time! But if you are preaching expository sermons—and expository series especially—you have no choice. You can’t get to the next pasture without passing by the electric fence, shocks and all. You have to face your fear, reaffirm your faith in God’s wisdom, and trust that your congregation needs to hear the whole counsel of God—even when the subject is touchy.
  7. I get to interrogate the text. Expository preaching forces the preacher to exegete, interpret, and expound on whatever passage lies before him, no matter how opaque, unfamiliar, or superficially uninteresting. In other words, the parts we skip over or skim quickly in our daily reading, we now have to face with microscope and megaphone. We have to interrogate the text to know why God included it in sacred Scripture and how it relates to our hearers today. Without question, the passages I know best are the passages I have preached. What a perk for pastors! And yet, if we eschew expository preaching, we cut ourselves off from this tremendous spur to deep understanding. If I weren’t blessedly forced to wrestle with new passages, I would soon find myself running to the same passages time and again; soon, I would have nothing new to say at all (just repackaged in the latest buzzwords). I thank God for any impetus to greater depth and breadth of true understanding.

[1] A preacher engages in eisegesis (from two Greek words meaning “lead” and “into”) when he invests the passage with his own meaning; in contrast, preachers should strive to do exegesis (from two words meaning “lead” and “out of”), drawing out the meaning of the passage and then contextualizing it appropriately.

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